A decision this week by the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division could lay the groundwork for greater scrutiny about the use of adoption subsidies, regular payments made to help support the adoption of youth from foster care.
In Matter of Barbara T. v. Acquinetta, the court ruled that the subsidy paid to the adoptive mother of a child named Ja-Quel could and should have traveled with the child when another person took guardianship of him. It is a judgment that adoption subsidies are connected more to the child than the caretaker.
“We know all too well from our daily work serving some of New York City’s most at-risk children and young people that a number of adopted children find themselves unable to remain in what were supposed to be their forever homes,” said Karen Simmons, executive director of the Children’s Law Center (CLC), who represented the child in this case.
The court “means that these youth, who are forced to navigate incredibly trying circumstances, will be able to access the support that they require and deserve,” she said.
All states provide subsidies to most of the parents who adopt a youth from the foster care system. In most of those cases, the state funds are matched with several billion dollars of federal money through the Title IV-E entitlement for foster care and adoption assistance.
This recent case cuts to an issue gaining attention in the child welfare field: what should be done with the subsidy when an adoption falls apart?
The subsidies are delivered through a contract signed with the adoptive parent. Generally, there are only three reasons that the subsidy would terminate:
- The child reached the age that the state cuts off adoption assistance (always 18 or older)
- The adoptive parent(s) is no longer legally responsible for the youth, and has had parental rights terminated.
- It is proven that the adoptive parent is providing absolutely no support to the youth.
But child welfare agencies do very little to verify a continuing relationship between the subsidized adoptive parent and the child. CLC and a group of other advocates in New York City have been pushing for laws that would require a more proactive approach, where counties would conduct light monitoring to confirm continued custody and also investigate claims by youth that an adoption had disrupted.
Legislation was introduced last year in New York to step up monitoring of adoption subsidies. That effort was met with concerns from the adoption community – the Adoption and Foster Family Coalition of New York questioned how the bills would have county agencies investigate alleged misuse of the payments.
In the Barbara T. case, Ja-Quel was adopted by a foster mother who relinquished guardianship of him at age 15. She then contacted the state and successfully requested the suspension of her adoption subsidy.
But Ja-Quel’s new guardian, his godmother, sought child support from his adoptive mother. And the court ruled in this case that “awarding child support in at least the amount of the subsidy for so long as the mother is eligible to receive it on the child’s behalf is an appropriate deviation from the basic child support obligation.”
Assuming the subsidy is restored to the adoptive mother, she will then be required to pass it on to Ja-Quel’s godmother as child support.
Advocates for greater scrutiny of the subsidies say the case could help propel New York to move toward legislation on the issue.
“This clearly defines that the subsidy is meant to be a resource for the child and not just the parent,” said Dawn Post, a lead advocate on the issue for CLC who recently left the organization to join the child welfare litigation firm A Better Childhood.
Betsy Kramer, policy director for the New York-based Lawyers for Children, said the specific details of Ja-Quel’s case – a suspended subsidy, and request of child support collection – differ from the subsidy issue they see more as legal advocates.
“The most common problem are those [parents] that continue to collect the subsidy after young people are no longer living with them,” Kramer said. In that instance, she said, “it is incredibly hard” to challenge the subsidy contract.
The legislation to ease that challenge process died with the close of the last legislative year, so new bills will need to be reintroduced.
“We have many members extremely interested,” Kramer said. “They were appropriately horrified when they heard about this problem.”
Note: This article was updated to correct the erroneous transcription of part of a quote.